REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Because the trainer of essentially the most a hit nationwide football crew in Icelandic historical past, Heimir Hallgrimsson has needed to make some sacrifices. This 12 months, as an example, he used to be in a foreign country with the crew and may no longer get dressed up as his favourite mythological personality, Gryla the child-snatching troll, on the Christmas celebration in Heimaey, his homeland.
As a result of Gryla’s gown obscures the wearer’s id, few folks learned that Hallgrimsson used to be for a few years the person within the troll go well with. “I don’t know who did it this 12 months,” his nephew, Arne Olafsson, stated, “however he used to be no longer as competitive as Heimir.”
Training a crew sure for the Global Cup has additionally left much less time for Hallgrimsson’s authentic task, taking a look after folks’s enamel in his dental observe in Heimaey (pop. four,300), a Five.2-square-mile volcanic island off Iceland’s south coast.
“It’s a great way to loosen up,” Hallgrimsson stated previous this 12 months right through a lull in Iceland’s football time table right here. Regardless of prime winds and a looming snow and ice hurricane, he used to be heading house for some not on time dental treatment (for himself). “Some coaches play golfing, shoot reindeer, no matter — everyone has one thing,” he stated. “However I truly revel in going again house to my shoppers.”
Football essentially takes precedence this present day. Underneath Hallgrimsson’s deceptively laid-back management, this tiny country sitting some distance away on the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans has in spite of everything develop into a contender.
Two years in the past, Iceland reached the quarterfinals of the Eu Championship by way of defeating England, a rustic 158 instances its dimension. Ultimate summer season, it dispatched its longtime nemesis, Croatia, and went directly to develop into the smallest country ever to qualify for the Global Cup. In the case of inhabitants — Iceland has about 334,000 population — it’s as though part of Staten Island (pop. 476,000) had been sending a crew to Russia.
There are lots of causes for the luck of the boys’s crew, now ranked an out of this world No. 22 in the world, up from 133rd six years ago. These include a national push to encourage new talent by training more coaches and building indoor soccer fields across Iceland; the maturation of a core group of players who have played together since boyhood; the development of a tight and disciplined defensive game to combat stronger opponents; and no small amount of good fortune.
But the road to Iceland’s larger success started, in some ways, when a man walked into a pub.
It was 2013, and Hallgrimsson had just become the assistant coach of the men’s national team. Under the head coach at the time, the Swedish veteran Lars Lagerback, the team was beginning to find its feet.
Still, it was a fixer-upper. Iceland had been an amateur team until the 1990s and played on gravel fields, even in icy weather. It had never qualified for a major international tournament. It had never beaten Croatia, though it seemed to play Croatia all the time. It had never shaken off the horror of a 1967 loss to Denmark, its former imperial overlord, by the score of 14-2.
One of the problems, Hallgrimsson believed, was the near-dearth of fan support. Though supporters came to the games, there was virtually no fan culture, none of the sort of emotional investment that can make soccer a symbiotic enterprise between spectators and players.
So he did something that would be unheard-of pretty much anyplace else: He invited fans to meet him at a pub before the next match, against the Faroe Islands. Only about a dozen hard-core supporters came. Hallgrimsson unveiled the starting lineup before releasing it to the news media; walked the fans through an exegesis of the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses; and showed them the same motivational video he had shown the players.
Hallgrimsson has kept up the tradition, even after becoming head coach two years ago. Now hundreds of people come to the meetings, part of a burgeoning group of fans that are among the most voluble, passionate (and peaceful, because they are Icelandic) in Europe. “I would like to give them ownership in what we are doing,” Hallgrimsson said. “It’s one of the benefits of being a small country, that you can have that sort of closeness.”
Iceland’s tiny size also informs a coaching philosophy that emphasizes the collective “us” over the individual “I.”
“If we believed that it’s down to one or two players, we would be losing before we played the game,” Hallgrimsson said. “It’s an important message to the kids in Iceland, because a small nation can’t make it with just one guy.”
Few thought Iceland would qualify for the European Championship in 2016, and almost no one predicted it would reach the quarterfinals. Unable to cope with losing to a team many had never even played against before, its opponents were reduced to whingeing and rationalizing.
When Iceland tied Portugal, 1-1, for instance, the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo accused the Icelanders of employing, as he described it, a “don’t try to play, and just defend, defend, defend” strategy.
“This, in my opinion, shows a small mentality,” he groused.
England went into a collective meltdown when it lost to Iceland, 2-1, in the next round, one of the worst humiliations (and there have been many) in the history of English soccer. The team’s coach, Roy Hodgson, resigned on the spot, before his traumatized players even made it to the dressing room.
“England have been beaten by a supermarket chain!” one fan joked on Twitter, relating to a logo of frozen-food grocery retail outlets prevalent in England.
Despite the fact that Iceland crashed out in its next fit, humbled by way of France — “We roughly had a flat tire,” Hallgrimsson stated of the Five-2 defeat — the crew returned to Iceland to seek out 100,000 folks, just about a 3rd of the nationwide inhabitants, massing at Keflavik Global Airport, lining up alongside the (two-lane) freeway and amassing in central Reykjavik, the place they carried out the intimidating however wordless Viking thunderclap chant that the lovers had rolled out on the match.
“This used to be a fact test for me,” Hallgrimsson stated. “I had idea, Everyone hates us as a result of we misplaced to France. So it used to be a nice wonder.”
The trainer’s lifestyles has been stuffed with surprises, of 1 kind or any other, since he grew up in a circle of relatives of six youngsters on Heimaey, the place his father, Hallgrim, ran a small industry repairing fishing nets. In 1973, when he used to be 6, molten lava and volcanic ash from the damaging Eldfell volcano spewed throughout the city, wiping out part the homes. (There have been few casualties; town used to be sooner or later rebuilt, however one of the crucial ruined section has been preserved, Pompeii-style, in ash.)
Non-fish-centric task potentialities in Heimaey are restricted. After highschool, Hallgrimsson decamped to Reykjavik to review laptop science with the objective of changing into a tool engineer. To assist pay her son’s hire, his mom took a task cleansing homes.
As is so continuously the case with scholars who join numbers-heavy classes with out understanding what they entail, Hallgrimsson used to be alienated by way of all of the math in his laptop categories. Additionally, he stated: “My sister’s husband is in that box, so I began studying the books and I assumed, That is rather dry.”
However he needed to in finding one thing to review. “My pal used to be doing dentistry and I assumed I’d just enroll with him and alter later,” he stated. “And I by no means did.”
Hallgrimsson’s sufferers reward his fascinating chairside way. By contrast to the older dentists he changed a few years in the past, he has a name for explaining precisely what he plans to do, even if it’s prone to harm.
“He’s at all times smiling, truly skilled and truly excellent at what he does,” stated Vedis Gudmundsdottir, who works in Reykjavik’s tourism workplace however has been a Hallgrimsson affected person since she used to be a lady. In the sort of small neighborhood, Hallgrimsson isn’t just a dentist however any person citizens see ingesting espresso with outdated buddies down on the harbor when he’s on the town.
“No person seems to be at him like he’s this big-shot trainer,” Gudmundsdottir stated.
Hallgrimsson nonetheless sees longtime sufferers who’re prepared to place up with the truth that he’s no longer at all times round. Coping with them, he stated, is best possible preparation for coping with football avid gamers.
“You understand how it’s within the dental chair,” he stated. “Some are truly petrified of going to the dentist. Others don’t thoughts someway. The 3rd workforce are drowsing. You must method each and every shopper otherwise — it’s a must to regulate to his persona — and it’s the similar with soccer avid gamers. You’ll be able to shout at one however it’s a must to watch out with the way you method any other one.”
Iceland faces an uphill combat in Russia. It used to be drawn into one of the vital harder first-round teams, with Nigeria, Argentina and Croatia (once more), and the chances don’t seem to be nice. However Hallgrimsson is encouraging the crew to appear forward, to the following massive factor after this one.
“You at all times need to be ready to forestall and restart once more,” he stated. Sooner than they’d even certified for the Global Cup, as an example, he confirmed the avid gamers images of the quiet Black Sea spot the place the crew would observe in Russia, in the event that they made it that some distance.
And he has been discussing technique for subsequent fall, when Iceland will compete within the first department of a brand new Europe-wide match.
“Luck isn’t a vacation spot,” Hallgrimsson stated. “The upward thrust and fall of Icelandic soccer isn’t hooked up to what occurs in Russia in 3 video games. It’s a continual adventure, which is why we wish to stay the momentum and take into account that it’s no longer simply this sport or the following match. That’s the one means you’ll assume while you’re an underdog.”